Everlane’s ReNew and the Power of the Conscious Consumer
By Katherine Leister
“Today, there are eight billion tons of plastic on the planet, and only nine percent of that is recycled. 1 million plastic bottles are made each minute. And once plastic is made, it lasts forever.” These are the kinds of facts that have been on the mind of Michael Preysman lately — thirty months to be exact. He is the founder and CEO of Everlane, a clothing company whose motto is “Exceptional quality. Ethical factories. Radical Transparency.” These statistics on plastic grace the lead ad for ReNew, Everlane’s line of outerwear launched in October 2018. The collection is made almost entirely of post-consumer plastic water bottles and paves the way for the company’s recent pledge to eliminate all virgin plastic from its entire supply chain by 2021. The brand calls it “outerwear with an outlook,” and it is likely to be the big push for change that the fashion industry so desperately needs.
One of the most ironic articles of clothing currently sold at Forever 21 is the “Thank You Graphic Tee.” It’s a standard short-sleeved white T-shirt, except with “THANK YOU” glaringly written three times upside down in red letters. Like the classic plastic grocery bag that it is inspired by, they are both pieces of junk. The shirt is one hundred percent cotton, should be washed in warm water, and is being sold for six dollars and ninety-three cents. Like most mass-produced T-shirts, this one begins at a farm, where the cotton is grown, and the mill, where cotton is woven into thread. Next, the thread travels to a factory, where it is measured, cut, sewn, and dyed. Most major clothing manufacturers outsource the production of their products to middlemen in countries like India, Vietnam, and China where both wages and workers’ rights are often very poor. A company like Forever 21 may hire Company B in India to take care of production, who then hires out Factory C, who enlists Factory D to help out when demand becomes too great. Most likely, in these factories, conditions are poor, employees are overworked and underpaid, and pollution and waste are afterthoughts, if thoughts at all. This tangled web results in a shady, untracked chain of production in which Forever 21 has essentially no idea where and how their products are made and what their environmental impact is.
Once produced, the shirt travels to a warehouse and then to a brick and mortar storefront, which are often dirty and disorganized and speak little to the integrity of the fashion industry. Here, someone buys the T-shirt, probably at the hands of impulse retail therapy. The sales clerk shoves it to the bottom of a fluorescent yellow bag along with ten other items and later the customer shoves it again in the back of an overflowing closet. The shirt is worn and washed two or three times before the colors bleed together or the hem begins to fray and the consumer, adjusted to this fast-paced consumer world, throws it out. Then, like all the other seemingly small things in our lives that we throw away, the shirt ends up in a landfill somewhere.
And then the cycle happens all over again.
This is what critics of the fashion industry call “fast fashion:”clothing made and sold cheaply to fulfill designer-created, commoner-desired trends that will be forgotten and shuddered about in three years. Fast fashion creates the so-called “fashion loop,” a cycle of production, consumption, and disposal that constantly generates waste. One day the system will implode. There will be nothing left to give. So here we arrive at the ultimate question: is it ethical for a T-shirt to be so cheap?
Everlane first began in 2010 based on the principal of radical transparency. It is the result of Preysman’s confusion at why a designer T-shirt that is made for seven dollars can be sold for fifty. Isn’t that dishonest? Don’t consumers have the right to know what they’re paying for? Everlane began with a T-shirt, a great quality one, made in Los Angeles and sold for sixteen dollars. As the company expanded, their manufacturing went overseas, which brought up a new issue for Preysman: don’t consumers have the right to know where their clothing is coming from and how it is made? Now, every product page on the Everlane website tells customers exactly which factory it came from (complete with videos and technical stats) and how much every step of the process costs, from labor to transportation to the zipper of a coat. This also includes Everlane’s profit from each product versus the tradition retail price of each item (usually horrifyingly more expensive).
Another main mission for Everlane is its reach for timelessness, and not only aesthetically. Their clothes are exceptionally well-made and are available in basic, versatile styles, designed to be worn for decades without falling apart or out of vogue, even when trends change. The idea is that clothing should be an investment, something to be pondered and loved so as not to waste natural resources and money and flood landfills. The goal is a divergence from wasteful consumerism.
On a Thursday evening in October, the Everlane crew and about one hundred savvy customers gathered at the ReNew Experience popup on Wooster Street in SoHo. They joined Preysman and Everlane’s head of product, Kimberley Smith, for “Transparency Talk:” a discussion about the journey to creating ReNew. This was just a week after the release of the United Nations’ concerning climate change report, and the entire event seemed shrouded in urgency. The ReNew Experience was based in a small warehouse-like space; water bottles hung from the ceiling like streamers, a table in the entryway displayed the different parts to the weaving process.The bottles are first shredded and melted into confetti-like pieces, then melted again into small beads, and then melted again and run through a machine to turn it into soft, silky thread), and a set of iPads in the corner allowed guests to calculate their yearly plastic footprint (mine was thirteen pounds, compared to the one hundred eighty-five pounds of the average American) and offered ways to reduce it. The most imposing part of the room was a circular wall display contrasting typical plastic goods with their reusable counterparts.
The release of ReNew, though itself a great feat, is more of a vessel for Everlane’s great pledge: to rid their entire supply chain of all new plastic by 2021. This initiative includes their warehouses, corporate offices, packaging, and, of course, products. Everlane is unique in its ability to do this because, unlike most major producers and brands, they possess control over their entire supply chain, from the factory to the customer. The most prominent example of this control discussed Thursday night was that of the poly bag, the clear plastic sleeve that protects clothing during shipment. Throughout its entire lifetime, a product may use three to four plastic poly bags, very few of which are ever recycled. Everlane has created a poly bag made entirely from post-consumer plastic, which, due to different colors of the plastics and contamination in the batches, comes out murky and not fully transparent. As Smith explained during the event, many warehouses require the use of clear poly bags that allow the scanning of barcodes beneath many layers of plastic, but Everlane, through its vertical control, has the ability to alter its warehouse practices to allow the use of unclear poly bags. This explains why many companies dealing on a much larger scale or that sell through wholesalers don’t have the ability to become completely virgin-plastic free.
Despite my previous concerns about style and quality in a clothing line like this sold at such low costs, the coats in the ReNew collection are remarkable. They are soft and light and actually feel like a cloud. My personal favorite is the Puffy Puff in Mustard Gold (retailing for $169) made from thirty-two post-consumer plastic water bottles. The Puffy Puff’s traditional-retail-counterpart is sold for $290, and while manufacturing recycled materials is ten to fifteen percent more expensive than creating new ones, Everlane is, according to Preysman, absorbing the deficit so that the difference is not handed back to customers. This is huge. By keeping environmentally conscious practices economically accessible (and to an unprecedented extent), Preysman and his team are allowing this movement to expand. They are demonstrating that mindfulness (in the Whole-Foods-organic sense) doesn’t have to belong only to a “liberal elite” capable of blowing three hundred dollars on a conscious coat. Preysman is certain that with time the technology Everlane has utilized will become more efficient and less costly. Will recycled water bottles be found in Target and Walmart one day?
Many customers are skeptical that ReNew is the solution to the plastic problem, especially when considering microplastics. Microplastics are tiny, often microscopic, particles of plastic that are found quite literally all over the world, in the oceans, air, and soil. Many researchers attribute much of these loose microplastics to the polyester and nylon fluff that becomes dislodged from clothing in the washing machine, drains with the water, and ends up in rivers and lakes (“Are We Eating Our Fleece Jackets?”). The controversial notion of the ReNew collection itself indirectly creating pollution was brought up at the Transparency Talk, and Smith and Preysman did not shy away from it. Everlane is, in fact, a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), a group of manufacturers and brands committed to developing standards of production through the Higg Index, a measuring system that allows companies to rate the overall social and environmental impact of their products. Everlane has also had their plastics Bluesign certified to ensure that no harmful chemicals are present. As Preysman pointed out in the discussion, most clothing in the market today is essentially made of plastic anyway — the only difference is that this time it’s recycled, and this, unarguably, puts the fashion industry in a much better place now than it was last year. The bottom line is that something must be done about the overwhelming amount of plastic in our world, so we might as well look cute while doing it. This leaves many customers still wondering about the environmental impact of actually processing the plastic. But manufacturing with recycled material actually uses less water and energy than producing new material, and Everlane is doing its best to work with factories that use renewable energy sources to make sure the good is not offset.
Two thirds of the waste in a clothing article’s entire lifetime is produced while it’s in the hands of the consumer. This means that the bigger question of sustainable fashion lies in consumer behavior: how we care for and dispose of clothing and what we choose to say with our spending power. This brings us back to Everlane’s ethos, based on investing in durable clothing that will last and be loved for a very long time. We as consumers have a responsibility to maintain a more conscious relationship with our clothing. This can mean not washing our clothes as often (seventy-five to eighty percent of clothing-related waste comes from washing and drying alone), using natural detergents, line drying), selling and buying used, mend and repurpose, and buying clothing made of natural fibers that can biodegrade , because, as the UN has revealed to us, we don’t have much time (“The Sustainability Report”; Redress).
But what do these changing practices mean for the consumer? No one can hardly expect every person in the world to spend seventy dollars on Everlane jeans just because they’re socially and environmentally more sustainable. What we need above all is a change in outlook. Consumers must learn to start thinking of clothing (really, all consumer goods) as an investment. Something to be deeply considered, deeply loved, and purchased infrequently with the intention long-term use. We must learn to pick up the T-shirt and see the farmer manning the cotton machine, the chemical dyes in vats on factory floors, the carbon dioxide emitted from the factory and the transport plane, and the landfills overflowing the earth instead of just the design we think is kind of cool.
Wooster Street was dark and cold. At the end of the event, I stepped onto the sidewalk and was met by the dazzling sight of the Gucci store looming across the street. What do you want from me? it seemed to be asking. I buttoned my coat — purchased on sale at Madewell, something I’d already begun rethinking — and shoved my hands deep into the pockets, preparing for the lonely walk home. Should I send my roommates my location? Just in case? The further I drifted from the chic confines of SoHo, the livelier the streets became, grittier. By the time I reached Bleecker Street, I began to feel less on edge about being out alone so late at night, but suddenly a rustle and a flash in the corner of my eye stopped me. I turned, releasing my breath. It’s fine. I’m safe, I thought. It was only a plastic grocery bag drifting along the street. I continued on, towards the lights and the noise of Washington Square Park. Now I wonder: Am I?